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“What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive? Or, if during the periods of mass arrests … people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang on the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood that they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?"
~ Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
“They are coming to kill us!” exclaimed a young resident of Sagra, Russia as he spied a column of vehicles approaching the tiny village at the feet of the Ural Mountains. Responding to the alarm, several dozen residents mustered near the town entrance, bearing whatever weapons they could find. Some of them grabbed pitchforks, chains, or knives. Three men arrived on the scene with shotguns.
The leader of the approaching convoy was Sergei “The Gypsy” Lebedev, head of a criminal gang that had tormented Sagra for months. Lebedev’s followers swiped anything of value that was left unguarded. Power tools, appliances, and other household property disappeared; homes were vandalized as copper tubing and wiring were ripped out to be sold to scrap metal dealers. An onslaught of shoplifting threatened the survival of the village’s only significant retail store.
Exasperated citizens complained to the police in nearby Yekaterinberg, only to be treated with a mixture of amusement and impatient annoyance. Mounting hostility against Lebedev and his underlings prompted the gangster to withdraw – but only to gather reinforcements.
The gang leader’s intent was to seize control of the village as a base of operations for a drug operation, and he clearly enjoyed the covert support of the region’s “law enforcement” establishment. Thus it was that late in the evening of July 1, Ledbedev assembled a contingent of about 60 armed thugs and mounted a punitive expedition against the village of 130 people.
As the headlights from the 15-vehicle convoy probed the gathering darkness, the men of Sagra formed a human roadblock across the bridge at the entrance to their town. The infernal column came to a halt, while its leader tried to decide how to deal with the unanticipated resistance. Suddenly a voice from behind them exclaimed, “Grenade!” An object that appeared to meet that description landed in the midst of the raiders, causing several to bolt in panic.
In fact, the weapon was a pine cone that had been hurled by Andrei Gorodilov, who had taken cover beside the road. At that signal, the air erupted in curses and insults hurled by many of the women of the village, who had hidden themselves behind trees.
The resulting diversion was brief, but effective: Andrei’s father, Viktor, let loose a blast from his shotgun. Two other defenders followed suit. The rest, bearing whatever improvised weapons they had found, lit into Lebedev’s hired killers with the unalloyed ferocity of men fighting on their own soil with their backs to their homes.
One of the invaders was killed, several more were wounded, and Lebedev was forced to retreat. At some point in the skirmish, Sagra resident Tatyana Gordeyeva contacted the police, who – displaying the efficiency and timeliness for which their profession is known – arrived long after the battle was over, and immediately began to treat the defenders as criminal suspects. Their first priority was not to pursue and arrest Lebedev and his cronies (who were eventually taken into custody), or to collect evidence for their eventual prosecution; instead, they attempted to clamp down a cover-up of the matter. They didn’t succeed.
Within a few days, news of the battle had been propagated throughout Russia, and Sagra quickly became “a catchword for a spate of violence around the country in which people have banded together to defend themselves in the absence of police protection,” noted the New York Times. An entrepreneur captured the public mood in a commemorative t-shirt with the inscription: “If the government can’t help people, it doesn’t have the right to forbid them from defending themselves – Sagra 2011.”
“What’s going on in this country is that the government isn’t protecting anyone,” observed Mr. Gorodilov, who spoke with the invincible authority of personal experience. That assessment was seconded by Konstantin M. Kiselyov of Ykaterinberg’s Institute of Philosophy and Law: “The police are corrupt or lazy or politicized, and it’s the same all across the country. So people must protect themselves. They can’t count on the government or its structures. That is why the country is turning into one big Sagra.”
The most remarkable reaction to the Battle of Sagra came from Alexander Torshin, the Speaker of the Federation Council (a position roughly analogous to Senate Majority Leader). Invoking the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Torshin announced that he would propose an amendment to the Russian Constitution guaranteeing “that a Russian citizen has the right under the law to bear arms.”
“We must give our citizens a chance at survival,” Torshin told the Interfax news agency, insisting that widespread private gun ownership doesn’t lead to “a surge in killings,” but rather “the reduction in street crimes and the murder rate.”
What makes Torshin’s stance all the more remarkable is the fact that roughly half a year earlier he had expressed support for banning private possession of “non-lethal” handguns.
It’s possible that this dramatic volte-face was the product of a sincere conversion. It’s likelier that Mr. Torshin knew which way the winds of public outrage are blowing, and aligned his sails accordingly. In any case, Torshin’s proposal is tangible evidence of a growing – and thoroughly commendable – Russian contempt for the very institution of government.
Totalitarianism is based on the assumption that human nature can be permanently altered through the systematic application of state terrorism. Lenin described his regime as a “scientific dictatorship” exercising “power without limit, resting directly on force, restrained by no laws, absolutely unrestricted by rules.” Within a generation or two, Lenin believed, his dictatorship would beget a new creature – homo sovieticus, the selfless, state-focused New Soviet Man. The gulag state would act as an alembic, refining troublesome individualism out of the species, even if this meant pitilessly liquidating millions of specimens regarded as unsuitable for the collectivist future.
Things didn’t quite work out that way. Communism wasn’t a scientific doctrine for the perfection of the human species; it was, in R.J.Rummel’s phrase, a “plague of power.” After the Hammer and Sickle was furled in 1991, the plague of ideological Communism mutated into form of state gangsterism incapable of reproducing itself beyond Russia’s borders. The Party Nomenklatura abandoned the conceit that they were History’s infallible vanguard, and settled into a very comfortable new role as Russia’s crony capitalist oligarchy.
While Russia’s criminal oligarchy has little use for ideology, they still embrace the idea of “power without limit, resting directly on force.” Valery D. Zorkin, chairman of Russia’s Constitutional Court, laments that Russia’s contemporary political model is based on “the fusion of government and criminals,” with the country increasingly “divided between predators, free in the criminal jungle, and sub-humans, conscious that they are only prey.”
In his November 2010 State of the Nation speech, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev acknowledged that in many parts of the country local governments have entered into a “direct merger with criminals” at the expense of the rights of law-abiding individuals. While this will surprise nobody who understands that the State is, and has always been, a criminal enterprise, this admission is striking when offered by a 46-year-old political leader who graduated from Leningrad State University.
One acutely horrifying example of the merger described by Medvedev was provided by a November 2010 massacre in Kushchevskaya, a city of 35,000 about 700 miles from Moscow. The city was the site of several major state-controlled collective farms during the Soviet era. After the USSR was dissolved, the local branch of the Nomenklatura created a quasi-private agricultural firm called Arteks Agro, which was controlled by a career Party functionary named Sergei Tsapok.
For the past decade, a criminal clique headed by Tsapok, and that included current and former members of the city government, conducted a reign of terror in Kushchevskaya, plundering and raping as they saw fit and killing anyone who complained in a voice louder than a whisper.
Complaints to the police availed nothing, since their duty was to maintain “order” – that is, to enforce the will of the local elite – rather than to protect the rights of the innocent. At public meetings, terrified and outraged local citizens would barrage municipal leaders with protests about the criminal onslaught, only to be told that “There are no criminal groups here.”
Last November 4, Tsapok’s gang invaded the home of Server Ametov, murdering him and eleven others, including four young children. The victims were stabbed, strangled, and set on fire. Ametov was a successful farmer, and since about 1998 Tsapok’s gang had been carrying out a modified version of Stalin’s collectivization program by driving small farmers off their land, murdering those (including Ametov’s brother) who resisted.
The ensuing outcry was sufficient to prompt official intervention, leading to Tsapok’s arrest. For millions of Russians, the Kuschevskaya atrocity demonstrated the fatal futility of seeking protection from the enforcement arm of the ruling criminal elite. The Russian disaffection toward government has grown so widespread and intense that the ruling establishment is actually reducing the size and power of its law enforcement apparatus. This a development without precedent in the country once terrorized by the Oprichniki, the Okhrana, and the Cheka.
In Russia, as elsewhere, the role of the police “is to control situations and to control the people rather than help them,” observes Leonid Kosals, a professor of economics at Moscow’s National Research University. As a result, people “turn to their neighbors and to relatives and local networks to solve their problems by themselves…. [I]n Russia we have thousands of such cases.”
The trend toward privatization of security in Russia is likely to grow as a result of President Medvedev’s recent initiative to reform the country’s militia – that is, its police force – by purging about 200,000 officers from the ranks. Sociologist Mikhail Vinogradov, who estimates that one-third of Russia’s police force is composed of alcoholics and psychopaths, points out that in 1991, the militia was reduced by about thirty percent – and the result was a sharp reduction in the crime rate.
During the past decade, the crime rate in the United States has declined, terrorism has been all but nonexistent – and the country has been transformed into a fair approximation of a high-security prison, complete with full-spectrum surveillance of the population and undisguised militarization of “local” police departments. At the same time, the political elite in charge of the former Soviet Union is addressing a legitimate crime crisis by drawing down the police force and recognizing (however tentatively) the right of citizens to armed self-defense.
For all of its problems, Russia clearly is no longer the land of Lenin. For all of our advantages, it’s just as clear that the United States of America is no longer the Land of the Free.